The Summer of Difficult Books
Book 2 – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
638 pages (Library of America edition)
Diction / Syntax: 7/10
Stylistic Features: 7/10
Background Knowledge Required: 6/10
Era: American Renaissance
Most of the best memories I have of working at a bookstore involve either ridiculous customer stories, or even better, discussions, arguments, or ruminations with fellow booksellers. We argued about how long a book needed to be in print before it could be called a “classic.” We discussed whether French or Russian literature was the superior. We ruminated on alternate ways to organize the store’s books. Should “Biography” be a section or should those books be organized by the subject’s field? One of my favorite discussions involved finding the unintentionally dirtiest book titles. One comment from a close friend and former colleague went like this, “If an author can’t say what he needs to say in fewer than 200 pages, then he just shouldn’t say it.”
This friend had a way of making these very types of comments with a wry smile on his face, knowing that he shouldn’t be taken seriously, but the comment stuck with me. Some of the most “taught” books are right about at that 200-page mark. Of course, this would exclude some of my favorite books from being published, such as East of Eden, Pillars of the Earth, Underworld, and several others. Save for maybe one book, it would leave Thomas Pynchon out of a job. This argument really gets to heart of why people write. Is it to entertain? To inform? To exorcise demons? Or is it, as my friend hinted at, to prove a point? Though I am only on the second book of this summer quest, I can confidently say that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick pretty much deflates my friend’s theory in a number of ways. Additionally, it answers all of the above questions as to why one writes.
Chances are, even if you have never read a single page of this infamous tome, you are somewhat familiar with aspects of the book. You may have heard of the name Captain Ahab, for instance. Or, if you’re alive in the world, you’ve heard the name of Ahab’s chief mate, because it has become the most ubiquitous name brand in the country, Starbuck(s). Several films and television movies have been made from the story, not to mention other books and films written about the real-life events that inspired Melville.
(In fact, in the spirit of bookseller stories, I happen to have one concerning Moby-Dick. While working at the Bookstar in Santa Monica (which was eventually relocated to its current 3rd Street Promenade location in the mid-90’s), a customer came in with only about 5 minutes left of open hours. I was newly promoted to supervisor and still had angst about all of the closing procedures, especially for such a large store. This customer came directly to me and asked me for two books, a biography of Miles Davis and Moby-Dick. We had a brand new in-house edition of the latter book with classic illustrations and he had wanted a copy. I helped the customer and we had a lengthy talk about Miles Davis while I found him the former book on his list. As I returned to the cashier counter and the customer checked out and left, I noticed that he stepped into a Bentley and sped off in to the hazy Los Angeles night. It was only later, after my coworkers started grilling me about our conversation, that I realized I had been helping Nicolas Cage, who had apparently been interested in adapting the Melville book into a film. That film never materialized, but I’d like to think that it exists in some alternate universe.)
Strangely, Moby-Dick is one of the few novels in existence in which everyone seems to know the story by its final chapter. Spoiler alerts have long since expired. You could, of course, have been peppered with a primer while watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, in which the titular villain spouts, Ahab-like, passages from the book as he pursues his white whale, The Starship Enterprise / Captain Kirk, who left him stranded some two decades prior. One Pavlovian memory I had, as I neared the end of the book, was as I read the passage, “There she blows! A hump like a snow hill It is Moby Dick!” (1378). I was able to track down where I heard it, at the age of 14, here. Most of all, people will likely be familiar with the novel’s iconic opening line, “Call me Ishmael.”
I will often use this line as an example for close reading. In just three words, Melville’s narrator is both mysterious and unreliable. He doesn’t say, “My name is Ishmael,” which would be much more definitive. No. Rather, he says, “Call me Ishmael,” which implies that Ishmael may not be the narrator’s actual name. From the first three words the entire remaining narrative is in doubt. This is only one of the genius moves by Melville throughout this book. Ahab is a Shakespearean figure, unrivalled in most of the literature that followed. His pronouncements toward the end of the book, some to himself, some to his crew, and one stellar example to Starbuck, are powerfully written. Extraordinarily, Ahab is not even in the book all that often.
In fact, the “action” of the book, that is the pursuance of the White Whale, only takes up about 20% of the entire novel. The rest of the book, which at first I thought I would find tedious, exemplifies the exquisite craft of Melville. Usually attributed to Mark Twain, the quotation “Write what you know” easily applies to Melville. His experience as a hand on at least three separate whaling ships in the 1840’s did much to inform his later writing. Chapters in which Melville describes the types of ropes used, the accuracy of artists’ renderings of whales, the bone structure of whales, the biological features of whales (one chapter for each feature), and a lengthy comparison of sperm whales with right whales all display the author’s extensive knowledge of a little known subject at the time. While some may find these chapters may slow down the narrative, I found that each section built up the scope, size, and magnitude of the ship’s prey to make the denouement that much more intense.
Other than a few passages that haven’t aged well in terms of racism or sexism, I adored this book. After Ulysses, its prose was far easier to manage, though at times challenging enough. One can easily ignore the specific terminology of whaling ships, as they do not readily affect the meaning of the narrative. Additionally, Melville gives you enough explanation of the really tricky terminology, so don’t worry about footnotes or looking up ship schematics beforehand. I still don’t know a mizzen from a forecastle, but the context helped quite a bit. (Yes, I know what they are now.) While Ulysses may be impenetrable to many readers, Moby-Dick is accessible and a beautiful example of prose craft. I was almost steered away from this project after that first difficult book, but as I got deep into this second novel, Melville himself reassured me to keep going when he wrote, “I try all things; I achieve what I can” (1163). In speaking to one of my summer book club members, a retired teacher with a lot of reading under his belt, I admitted that I eventually plowed through Ulysses with the idea that I would just pick up what I could and hang on to things I understood. He nodded exuberantly and said, “That’s exactly the right thing to do. That’s what real readers do.” And so, I’ll chase these “difficult” books round perdition’s flames before I give them up.
Coming up Next: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Coming up Next: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon